The candidates range from the most senior to more junior Democrats on the panel, represent a mix of genders and races and have focused on different areas of the committee’s work, from citizenship and census matters to its current investigations into Trump’s administration and business dealings.
Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) is serving as acting chair of the committee, as its most senior Democratic member, and she said in a brief interview Friday she intends to seek the gavel on a permanent basis.
Like others, she declined to speak in great detail about the contours of her bid out of respect for Cummings’s passing last week. But she is likely to point to her recent history of legislative victories — such as permanently reauthorizing a victims compensation fund for those who responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks — as well as her long service on the panel and leadership on census issues culminating in a successful effort to keep a citizenship question off the 2020 Census form.
But other members of the panel say they believe they have a stronger case for becoming the face of Congress’s top watchdog panel during a once-in-a-generation impeachment standoff with the president.
According to people familiar with their plans, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly, Reps. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) both plan to launch bids to succeed Cummings as Oversight chair.
Connolly — who served as vice ranking Democrat under Cummings during the last Congress, and stepped in as the top Democrat when Cummings was hospitalized — has more seniority on the panel than Speier and chairs its most expansive subcommittee, on government operations. He also sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee, which is also engaged in the impeachment probe.
But Speier has more seniority in the House overall and was selected by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to sit on the House Intelligence Committee, which has taken a first-among-equals role in the impeachment inquiry.
Speier declined to comment. Connolly said Monday he had not made a final decision on whether to run: "Obviously, I'd be interested," he told reporters. "Right now I'm focused on doing my job and getting ready" for Cummings's funeral.
Both Connolly and Speier have been noticeably more involved in the impeachment probe than Maloney, who chairs a Financial Services subcommittee. Each is a far more frequent presence than Maloney on cable news networks, laying out the status of House Democrats’ inquiry and the case they are building against Trump.
The three House panels — Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight — are jointly conducting the probe into whether Trump solicited foreign assistance for his reelection campaign by holding back promised and vital military aid to Ukraine as he pressured leaders there to investigate a political rival.
Congress often obeys the rules of seniority when it comes to passing the torch for panel leadership positions — a tradition that would favor Maloney. Yet there is no hard-and-fast rule mandating that is the case; instead, candidates make their case to the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which will make a recommendation in a process that will commence after Cummings’s funeral Friday, according to Democratic aides. That recommendation will ultimately be subject to a vote of the full House Democratic caucus.
The speaker’s wishes are often influential in that process. “At the end of the day, Nancy Pelosi is going to be the most powerful vote,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.).
Part of the Steering Committee’s challenge is that there is a consensus among leaders and rank-and-file members that there is no obvious candidate to fill the shoes of Cummings, the son of sharecroppers who rose to become a senior statesman, whose booming baritone commanded the respect of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, and one of the most skilled Democratic voices in articulating the party’s grievances with the Trump administration and its impeachment case against the president.
One obstacle for Connolly is potential criticism Democrats may face if the three panels conducting the impeachment inquiry are all led by white men, particularly in a House Democratic conference that has frequently boasted about being the most diverse in history.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) is the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, while Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) leads the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus are laying the groundwork to support Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), who is African American and the third-highest-ranking Democrat on the panel, should he elect to run for the chairmanship, according to two members familiar with behind-the-scenes discussions.
The CBC, with 53 members in the 234-member House Democratic caucus, is a formidable force in leadership elections, and its leaders are likely to argue that it is appropriate to name a black lawmaker as Cummings’s successor, though in the past the group has argued for respecting straight seniority. Clay declined to comment on his plans last week.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who is the second-highest-ranking Democrat on the panel and is also African American, said Monday that she was supporting Maloney due to her seniority. But, she added, “if something happens to her, I’m next, and I will sure try to get it.”
Lawmakers may also take into consideration how compelling a party spokesperson the next chair will be, given that the Oversight Committee is expected to continue its investigations of Trump, his companies and his policies long after the House ends its impeachment probe.
Age and health could also factor in: Despite Cummings’s dominating presence, he had struggled with illness since 2017, and some congressional officials privately worry about the potential downsides of having another chairman with health challenges. Clay is 63, Connolly is 69, Maloney is 73, Norton is 82 and Speier is 69.
While the succession race plays out, the day-to-day investigative work of the panel will go on. Whoever inherits Cummings’s gavel will also inherit the Oversight Committee staff, which is considered the engine of the panel’s investigative work.
Maloney said Friday she would make “absolutely” no personnel changes in the immediate aftermath of Cummings’s death.
“The work of the Committee on Oversight and Reform will continue uninterrupted despite our heavy hearts — as Chairman Cummings would have wanted,” she said in a statement released Monday. “We will continue to pursue the impeachment inquiry with vigor in support of the investigation led by the Intelligence Committee.”